There are many different controversies with respect to food, among them issues about long-run food security, about different health issues related to food including added salt and trans-fats, or on the positive side the value of highly-nutritious superfoods. But probably the biggest subject of public debate with respect to food these days relates to GMOs, or genetically-modified organisms. They are almost always banned in Europe, but in the U.S. not only are they not banned, but they are not labelled, and they make up a significant portion of the food supply. Some estimates place the amount of processed food containing a GMO crop at around 80% in the United States, the most common being high fructose corn syrup, corn starch, canola oil and soy products (UC Biotech.org, 2012). This paper will argue that genetically modified foods should be labeled, in order to allow consumers to make up their own minds about whether they want to ingest such products or not.
One of the arguments in favor of taking a cautious approach, which labeling represents, is that nobody really knows what the health outcomes of genetically-modified foods are. Advocates of genetic modification have argued that there are no demonstrated negative health outcomes from eating genetically-modified foods (Entine, 2014). This is a logical fallacy, known as illicit negative, in that a positive conclusion cannot derive from a negative premise. In other words, just because negative health effects have not been proven does not mean that they do not exist. There are doubtless many sources in scientific literature showing studies of short-term effects of GMO consumption, but the reality is that there is not a single longitudinal study to demonstrate the safety of GMO foods. The reason for that is simple -- the first GMO food sold only came market in 1994 (Martineau, 2001). Twenty years is not enough time to prove that consumption of GMO foods over one's lifetime, including in childhood, will not cause health problems in later years. The people making this argument, it is worth noting, did not grow up eating GMO foods, so they are gambling with house money.
Within a couple of years of the approval of the first GMO crop, soybeans, cotton, corn, potatoes and squash were approved. The genetic modification in the 1994 Flavr Savr tomato delayed ripening, which allowed tomatoes to be brought to market from farther away. But the next wave of GMO crops were all modified not for a specific benefit to the consumer, but for benefit to the companies that manufacture poisons. On one hand, there is the argument that crops resistant to herbicides and pesticides are going to be more resistant to insects and other blights, and therefore the crops will be more stable from one year to the next. While this is true, the implication is that poison-resistant crops were necessary because we couldn't spray enough poisons on crops before. While greater harvest stability is a positive outcome of such genetic modifications, the opportunity cost of that outcome is that consumers get to eat crops that have faced significantly more pesticide and herbicide than ever before, and that pesticide manufacturers can increase their sales, in addition to entering and dominating the seed market. More on that later. Where longitudinal studies come into play is not any fear that delayed-ripening tomatoes are going to delay puberty or such nonsense, but that consuming increased amounts of pesticides and herbicides for our entire lives since childhood will increase negative health effects as we age -- while we have no hard evidence either way, any reasonable person can deduce that more poison in a person's body, starting before birth, is going to increase the risk of adverse health outcomes in older age. We are a good 30-40 years from being able to verify things like cancer rates due to the first wave of GMO crops, which is a strong case for the cautious approach...
James and Krattiger, writing in 1996, were already extolling the benefits in terms of being able to feed a rapidly-growing global population. This is not an unreasonable argument at all -- nobody likes the idea of starving to death. The idea of calories as commodity is born of such logic. There are underlying assumption to the food security argument that in my view undermine the argument. The first is that the world inevitably must increase its population upwards of 11 billion (James & Krattiger, 1996). That is not the case -- in fact, 11 billion or anything close to it will stretch our freshwater resources long before our food resources. The other assumption is that people are eating more, in some countries doubling their caloric intake. While people anywhere have the right to do this, it is not optimal at all. Even if we could find a way to feed 11 billion people an American diet, doing so is not going to make the world a better place. Feeding people well enough to avoid hunger is just fine as a social objective.
The other food security issue is with respect to biodiversity and long-run food security. In the short run, greater harvest stability will allow us to produce more calories in a year, all other things being equal. That is not in dispute, and it is a perfectly reasonable argument. But there are opportunity costs to every decision. GMO foods reduce biodiversity. Since Roundup Ready Corn was introduced in 1998, it has capture 90% of the U.S. corn market, with similar market share for Roundup Ready Soybeans (Morris, 2010). We can set aside more a moment the ethics of one company having such monopoly power -- and abusing it by forbidding farmers from saving and replanting the seeds among other anti-competitive practices -- and the ethical concerns are legion. When all the corn is of one type, and the nation is entirely dependent on one company for seedstock every year, this poses enormous risk to biodiversity. Other forms of corn will simply vanish. The risk posed to native corn diversity in Oaxaca, the heartland of corn biodiversity, by GMO plantings has become a political flashpoint, with so much corn diversity at risk that the species may never recover were these varieties to be lost (Wilton & Bush, 2013).
The risk in the U.S. is that the GMO crop fails for some reason, which would leave the nation without any corn. The calorie as commodity argument is often applied to the developing world as well, but they are even more poorly equipped to withstand supply shocks, should they surrender native crops for GMO crops. Biodiversity has emerged over millions of years, the product of evolution and adaptation, such that natural crop varieties have enough diversity that it would be difficult to wipe out all of the corns in the world, or all of the tomatoes. But if there is only one corn, and one tomato, it could easily be wiped out. In the long run, food security depends on biodiversity, and GMO crops run counter to that.
Many counterarguments have been presented here. GMO proponents argue that no evidence shows GMO foods are unsafe. As trained scientists, they are well aware of the intellectual dishonesty of omitting the fact that longitudinal studies have not been performed, and that we will not know the safety of GMO foods for several more decades. The reality is that we are making due as best we can with the GMO issue. Some places ban them, others label them, but only in the U.S. is there such active resistance to informing the consumer.
Improving crop stability will enhance the caloric output of the global food system. This common argument is not in dispute. In the short run, GMO proponents are correct about that. But with every choice you make, there is an opportunity cost, a choice you did not make to take a different path. The trade-off with respect to GMO foods is that you increase production in the short run, but you risk long-run production by damaging food biodiversity, which puts the entire food system at risk should one of these GMO crops fail. The other trade-off is that encouraging a world where there are no consequences to population growth, and all 11 billion people can eat like Americans, is not exactly a desirable outcome. It would soak up all of our fresh water, first of all. We would run out of the fossil fuels we use for fertilizer faster, too. Ultimately, such consumption from so many people is not sustainable, and no amount of GMO food production is going to change that in the long-run. The future of food security is in biodiversity, not reducing the species of key food crops to one, never mind one that is controlled entirely by a single…
Furthermore, these crops could exhaust soil to such a degree that no more crops could be developed there, and thus contribute to rather than alleviate the problem of world hunger. Another problem cited by opponents is the danger to biodiversity that might be created by GMO's. Genetically modifying foods may have a negative impact on the environment by destroying biodiversity, according to this group. Proponents however argue that biodiversity is
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